Military Officer | 4.1.10
By Alan W. Dowd

The Navy is fighting piracy in the waters around Africa, while Marines and soldiers are mired waist-deep in nation-building missions, insurgencies and civil wars.

It may sound like the same old bad news from this morning’s paper, but these examples actually come from another century. Piracy, after all, was a bigger problem in the 19th century than it is today. And U.S. troops were enmeshed in a bloody insurgency in the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century, a civil war on the Korean peninsula in the middle, and an open-ended nation-building operation in the Balkans at the end.

Indeed, as readers of Military Officer know, the U.S. military has been an active force overseas from the very beginning. In 1775, for example, Gen. Washington sent a task force to Bermuda to seize British gunpowder.[1] In 1798, U.S. Marines deployed to the Dominican Republic to fight French-backed privateers. And in the 1800s, as a review by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) details, American forces were engaged around the globe—in Angola and Egypt, Fiji and the Philippines, China, Korea and Japan, Samoa and Sumatra, Tripoli and Turkey.[2]

Of the hundreds of instances of U.S. intervention abroad before this century, many were simple shows of force. But almost two dozen were related to piracy and terrorism; 30 would be considered peacekeeping today; 60 were related to failed states; more than 45 were related to enforcing international norms; and only five were declared wars.[3]

In other words, the notion that America was, once upon a time, content to isolate itself from the world is more fiction than fact. We need to keep this in mind as our military wages war and keeps the peace “over there.”

Swinging the Big Stick

Following President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” the U.S. military recognizes that a show of force is sometimes just as effective as the use of force.

In Afghanistan, for instance, U.S. warplanes often “buzz” Taliban insurgents instead of bombing them. “When they hear the sound of an A-10,” according to one Air Force general, “they scatter.”[4]

A similar principle is applied on a global scale: In 2009, B-52s flew from Guam to Australia; F-22s deployed from Alaska to Guam and Japan; and B-2s were dispatched to Alaska. All of these deployments sent a message to friend and foe alike, especially Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow.

Likewise, in 2007, aircraft carriers steamed into the Persian Gulf to conduct maneuvers for Tehran’s benefit. In 2004, the Pentagon surged seven carrier strike groups into five theaters of operation. When asked if the global exercise was designed to send any signals, an admiral coyly responded, “I think that’s advantageous.”[5]

In short, shows of force can actually prevent hostilities. The U.S. military began carrying them out in the 1800s, conducting maneuvers from Fiji to Japan, from West Africa to Paraguay.[6] By the 1900s, TR had transformed the show of force into an art form, using the Navy to promote U.S. interests in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Pacific.

Fighting Piracy and Terrorism

Of course, sometimes a simple show of force is not enough to persuade the enemy or advance the national interest. Consider the new/old problem of piracy.

In 2008, pirates attacked 130 ships in the Gulf of Aden; some reports indicate that pirate attacks doubled in 2009.[7] In response to the spike in piracy, a U.S.-led NATO armada has been deployed to combat this ancient plague of the seas, sometimes with lethal force.

By way of comparison, CRS reports there were 3,000 pirate attacks in the Caribbean between 1815 and 1823. The Navy responded in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish Florida and the Yucatan. Yet the pirate plague wasn’t quarantined to this hemisphere. CRS reminds us that between 1801 and 1855, U.S. forces carried out anti-piracy missions in Tripoli, Algiers, Greece, Sumatra, Ivory Coast and Hong Kong.

Since pirates are “a species of terrorist,”[8] as author Douglas Burgess Jr. observes, it’s worth noting that the war on terrorism—what soldiers and Marines call their “away game”—is not new for the military.

U.S. warships were ordered to Turkey in 1851, after what CRS calls “a massacre of foreigners, including Americans.”[9] When a warlord kidnapped what he thought to be an American, TR sent a fleet to Morocco, his secretary of state famously declaring, “We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”

In a similar manner, in 1985, President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. warplanes to intercept an airliner carrying Palestinian terrorists who had hijacked the Achille Lauro and murdered an American.[10] In 1986, after terrorist bombings were traced back to America’s old nemesis in Tripoli, Reagan ordered airstrikes against Libya.

Perhaps history does repeat itself.

Keeping the Peace

One constant in history is mankind’s desire for peace and impulse to war. It falls to great powers like the United States to play the role of peacekeeper.

We tend to think of open-ended peacekeeping deployments in places like Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq as anomalies of the past decade, pointing to World War II and Desert Storm as the gold standard for U.S. engagements because of their tidy conclusions.

Yet World War II ended with U.S. troops keeping the peace in Germany and Japan, where they remain today. Desert Storm ended with U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, a humanitarian mission in northern Iraq, and unfinished business in Baghdad.

In fact, U.S. troops have been used as peacekeepers for more than a century, and owing to the fickle nature of international events their missions seldom end with a clear-cut exit strategy. Consider the occupation of the Philippines. Like Iraq and Afghanistan a century later, it was a brutal blend of peacekeeping and counter-insurgency. It lasted decades.

Likewise, U.S. troops have been keeping the peace in the Sinai since 1982 and on the Korean peninsula since 1953. U.S. troops deployed to China as peacekeepers in 1945, Honduras in 1925, the Balkans in 1919, Panama from 1918 to 1920, Nicaragua from 1912 to 1925 and Hawaii in 1874.[11]

Intervening in Failed States

Peacekeeping often goes hand in hand with nation-building, and nation-building usually follows on the heels of state failure or regime collapse. Consider America’s recent nation-building/peacekeeping efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, which were failed or failing states before the U.S. intervened. Given the heartaches spawned by these broken lands, it’s easy to understand why the American people have developed a distaste for this thankless work.

Yet America’s role in failed states is not new. It arguably dates back to 1816, when U.S. troops entered Spanish Florida—an ungoverned region CRS describes as a haven for “raiders making forays into United States territory”—to bring order. By 1819, the territory was transferred to the U.S.[12]

Between 1873 and 1896, U.S. forces were dispatched to lawless areas in Mexico to pursue “thieves and other brigands.”[13] Also in the 1800s, U.S. forces deployed to Colombia, due to the “absence of local police or troops” after the death of Columbia’s president, and to Korea “during unsettled political conditions.”[14]

The U.S. continued to intervene in Mexico in the early 20th century, given that the Mexican government—not unlike the Syrian and Pakistani governments today—was either unwilling or unable to prevent cross-border attacks.

Washington deployed some 5,600 troops to quell disorder in China after a 1912 rebellion; deployments continued through 1941.[15]

Before their long-term occupation from 1915 to 1934, U.S. forces intervened 16 times in Haiti between 1900 and 1913.[16] President Bill Clinton followed suit in 1994, as did President George W. Bush a decade later, as did President Barack Obama after the 2010 earthquake razed the veneer of stability in that chronically unstable country.

It pays to recall that U.S. troops rebuilt Japan, Germany and South Korea into vibrant, modern democracies not just from failed-state status, but from rubble.

Speaking of democracy, some Americans groan when U.S. forces are used for “election protection,” a primary mission in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.[17] Yet American troops supervised elections in Panama in 1912, as CRS notes. Americans oversaw municipal elections in Germany in 1946.[18]Japan’s post-imperial constitution was written by Gen. MacArthur’s staff. RAND’s James Dobbins observes that teams from the U.S. military government were sent to school districts to stamp out emperor worship in postwar Japan.[19]

Now that’s intervention.

Policing the Global Beat

Another form of military intervention we consider to be a modern phenomenon is humanitarian intervention. Yet long before U.S. forces rescued post-tsunami Sumatra, triaged postwar Bosniaor post-quake Haiti, fed Somalia, protected Kosovo or shielded Iraqi Kurdistan, TR argued against “cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the oppressed.”[20] Even when “our own interests are not greatly involved,” he declared in 1904, “action may be justifiable and proper.”[21]

The American people took such action a few years earlier, when Cuba revolted against Spain. To put down the rebellion, the Spanish herded thousands of Cubans into “barbed-wire concentration camps,” historian Walter LaFeber recounts.[22] That helped pave the way for a humanitarian war.

Of course, the Spanish-American War had strategic as well as humanitarian implications. Most U.S. interventions do. Consider the Berlin Airlift, which rescued a city from starvation and tyranny, while dealing a blow to Stalin.

Similarly, the ongoing role the U.S. military plays in keeping sea lanes and airspace open serves American interests, but it also serves the wider interests of international commerce, stability and peace.

From cyberspace to space, from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea, the U.S. military protects what Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls “the global commons.”[23] In 2009, for instance, there were six incidents involving U.S. and Chinese vessels, owing to the fact that Beijing makes claims 200 miles off its coastline and Washington enforces a commonly recognized 12-mile zone.[24]

Again, there’s nothing new about this. Since 1979, U.S. forces have challenged excessive airspace and coastal claims around the world under the Freedom of Navigation program.[25]

In the 1980s, when Libya claimed the Gulf of Sidra, the Navy ignored Qaddafi’s “line of death.” Similarly, in the 1890s, the Navy deployed to the Bering Strait to counter seal poaching.[26] In 1864, the U.S. joined an international armada to enforce transit treaties through Japanese waters.[27]

As military writer Robert Kaplan suggests, the U.S. is more of a global umpire than global empire.[28]

Staying in Step

As globalization increases the capacity of states and stateless groups to do harm—as well as our awareness of the challenges “over there”—the need for these far-flung missions grows.

Likewise, there is a growing need for public support of the men and women who carry out these missions. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed when America was young, “Among democratic nations, the private soldiers remain most like civilians; upon them…public opinion has the most influence.”[29] 

Understanding that the United States has a long history of overseas intervention can help the American people and their military stay in step.

[1] CIA, “Intelligence in the War for Independence,” https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/intelligence/intellopos.html.

[2] Richard Grimmet, Instances of US of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2009, Congressional Research Service, February 2, 2009.

[3] Grimmet.

[4] AP, “3-star: Buzzing is part of Afghan air strategy,” Aug 13, 2009.

[5] Julian Barnes, “Making Big Waves,” US News and World Report, August 22, 2004.

[6] Grimmet.

[7] Reuters, “German, Greek commandos thwart pirate attack,” August 14, 2009; AFP, “NATO extends anti-piracy mission of Somalia,” April 24, 2009.

[8] Douglas R. Burgess Jr., “Piracy Is Terrorism,” New York Times, December 5, 2008

[9] Grimmet, p.5

[10] Grimmet, p.14.

[11] Grimmet.

[12] Grimmet, p.2.

[13] Grimmet, p.6.

[14] Grimmet, pp.5-6.

[15] Grimmet, p.9.

[16] Niall Ferguson, Colossus, p.56; Grimmet, p.9.

[17] CNN, “Troops head to southern Afghanistan for election protection,” www.cnn.com, August 12, 2009.

[18] James Dobbins, America’s Role in Nation Building: From Germany to Iraq, RAND, 2003, p.16.

[19] Dobbins, p. 44.

[20] Quoted in Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p.594.

[21] Theodore Roosevelt, Annual Message to Congress, December 6, 1904.

[22] Walter LaFeber, The American Age, p.197.

[23] Robert M. Gates, Remarks to the AirWarCollege, April 21, 2008.

[24] Lucy Hornby, “China urges US to halt surveillance near its shores,” Reuters, August 27, 2009; Ann Scott Tyson, “China draws US protest over shadowing of ships,” Washington Post, March 10, 2009.

[25] Department of Defense, “Freedom of Navigation,” www.dod.mil/execsec/adr1999/apdx_i.html and http://www.dod.mil/execsec/adr95/appendix_i.html.

[26] Grimmet, p.6.

[27] Grimmet, p.5.

[28] Robert Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy, pp.89-95.

[29] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p.545.